On Monday a special prosecutor announced that neither the sheriff’s office nor jailers in Waller County, Texas, would face criminal charges related to the death of Sandra Bland, a black woman who was arrested during a routine traffic stop last summer in Texas and was found three days later hanged in her cell.
In a time of heightened scrutiny following the highly publicized killings of black Americans by police, Bland’s arrest and untimely death renewed national debate over the inequitable, and sometimes brutal, treatment of black citizens by police.
Bland’s family members have since filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against authorities in Texas openly questioning the official cause of death as a suicide. Friends and family have disputed that Bland would have taken her own life, saying that she was “in good spirits” and looking forward to starting a dream job at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M University.
While it may seem unthinkable to loved ones, statistics show that Bland’s grim fate is shockingly common.
Suicide is the leading cause of death in local jails. According to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (PDF), since 2000, 4,134 people have taken their own lives while awaiting justice in local jails.
In 2013, 327 inmates—a third of the total who died while in custody of local jails—died this way. The suicide rate per jail inmates increased 14 percent from 2012 to 2013, and 23 percent from 2009.
Roughly 60 percent of all suicides in jails involve inmates between the ages of 25 and 44. Bland was 28 years old.
Suicide is more of a problem for jails than prisons, with half of them occurring within the first week of admission. The reason for the disparity is twofold, says Lindsay Hayes, the project director for the nonprofit National Center on Institutions and an expert in suicide prevention in prisons: fear and bad policing.
This month in Roanoke, Virginia, 22-year-old Clifton Antonio Harper was found hanging by his bedsheet in his jail cell. Harper had been in jail since March on charges of burglary, grand larceny, and assault.
And a 35-year-old Indianapolis man jailed for theft and possession of paraphernalia reportedly killed himself while in custody, prompting a review of jail suicides in Marion County.
In jails, Hayes says, people are sometimes going in for the first time, facing uncertainty and fear. Some are intoxicated at the time of their arrest, which can trigger an emotional response.
It’s what corrections expert Steve J. Martin called the “shock of confinement.” In an interview with NPR, Martin explained the trauma of being in jail for the first time: “My life is going to end right now with this experience. Everything I’ve worked for, the way people view me, the way my parents view me’—all that stuff is suddenly and dramatically in jeopardy.”
Hayes says that, while jails are getting better, there are still many that lack good training and intake screening practices that prisons have worked to institute.
“The classic response used to be, ‘If an inmate wants to kill himself, there’s nothing you can do about it,’” Hayes said. “Fast-forward to today and jails and prisons are much better resourced, and have tools now to identify suicidal behavior and manage it.”
In fact, Bland’s death prompted the Texas legislature to call for a review of local jails and how potentially suicidal inmates are handled and treated. Such reviews have resulted in an increased emphasis on training jail staff and an improvement in screening procedures in the state. New intake forms that identify suicide risks were put into practice this month by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.
Death by hanging is by far the most common method of suicide in U.S. jails—either by bedding, or with clothing attached to an anchoring device such as a bunk, bars, or a cell door, according to a national study of jail suicide (PDF).
Critics have blasted Waller County jailers for failing to properly monitor Bland after she told them about a previous suicide attempt. While an intake form shows Bland answered “yes” to whether she had ever attempted suicide—as recently as 2014 by “pills”—her jailers left her alone in a cell with a plastic trash bag which she used to strangle herself.